Thursday, September 11, 2008

Chrysler exec lauds potential of Jeep brand

Jim Press outlines Chrysler's plans for technology and vehicle development.

DETROIT - The Jeep brand must not be devalued by less-rugged vehicles that don't live up to Jeep's off-road image, Jim Press, Chrysler LLC vice-chairman and president, told a roomful of auto writers yesterday.

"We need to keep it a genuine Jeep image, we can't dilute it by trying to sell out the volume of the brand on 'faux' Jeeps. We want to return to our roots and have trail-rated authentic Jeeps that have value," Mr. Press said during a speech here to members of the Automobile Press Association.

The auto executive, who left Toyota Motor Corp. a year ago to join Chrysler, also promised big changes for the privately held automaker, including a technology that he said will transform the automobile.

Specifically, Chrysler will introduce seven new models for 2010, some of which would include advanced drive systems, Mr. Press said.

Commenting further on Jeep, Mr. Press said, "Our customers are passionate about their vehicles," adding that many Jeep enthusiasts have the brand name tattooed on their bodies.

"There's a loyal owner body, and it's not only here, it's international. We don't really have an international market coverage. Not only could we expand Jeep and make it a deeper, richer, truer product, we don't have to really worry about volume."

"The global opportunity for Jeep is tremendous," he said.

But Chrysler has other initiatives with big potential, Mr. Press said.

Chrysler's new hybrid-electric ENVI advanced engineering project "is developing a series of vehicles that have different types of electric drive [components], from hybrids, plug-in hybrids … pure electrics - all electrified products. We're working diligently on those vehicles," the Chrysler president said.

Mr. Press said Chrysler is making progress on what the company calls "Project D" - a single-platform global vehicle framework that could be used in a new midsize car, a crossover, a sport utility vehicle, or even a truck at the same location. Chrysler considers Project D its top priority.

"We're moving from the laboratory as science experiments and onto the street. These are going to be very doable products, looking at production, and not just research," Mr. Press said.

Chrysler rolled out three concept vehicles at the 2008 Detroit International Auto Show, each of which had advanced drivetrain components designed to radically raise fuel efficiency and reduce harmful emissions. Mr. Press predicted future vehicles would be even more innovative, thanks to the engineering progress being made by Chrysler engineers.

"To sustain our ability to build and sell cars and trucks globally in the future, we've got to reduce our footprint on society," he said.

Mr. Press's hourlong talk included discussion of eliminating "duplicate" vehicles, such as the Dodge Nitro and Jeep Liberty. Another Chrysler executive said last week production of those vehicles might be halved.

Mr. Press said it made little sense to have Dodge Grand Caravans and Chrysler Town & Country minivans in the same showroom, and spend $100 million marketing each of the two models.

Private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Partners LP bought 80.1 percent of Chrysler from Germany's Daimler AG in August, 2007, in a $7.4 billion transaction, ending a stormy nine-year partnership. Daimler, which owns the remaining 19.9 percent, indicated through its own financial results last month that Chrysler lost an estimated $510 million in the first quarter.

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